Morgan Parker, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (Switchback Books 2015)
Mindy Nettifee, Sleepyhead Assassins (Moon Tide Press 2006)
Mindy Nettifee, Rise of the Trust Fall (Write Bloody Publishing 2010)
These three books don’t have a lot in common besides being written by young US women and having been given to me as gifts. They do have a lot going for them, but I’m not their ideal reviewer: my experience of reading each of them wasn’t a million miles away from how I felt recently when I was almost completely unamused by a French rom com in a theatre full of laughing people. Horses for courses.
The equivalents of the laughing cinema-goers were the books’ extravagant blurb-writers.
Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night was a gift from a Book Group member who had just spent a couple of weeks in Brooklyn. On its back cover Eileen Myles (on whom the formidable poet character in Transparent is based) says of Morgan Parker’s poems, in part:
They make me high and think like this: Her mind and her thoughts can go anywhere in a poem. She pulls us up short, and when she says ‘the sky the sky’ I feel that expanse … I start taking notes: She is making a map of what human can be … she’s raucous and engaged … indeterminate, visceral … collisions … these are full adventures in scale. There are piles of masterpieces here.
Um, you might be less enthusiastic than Eileen Myles if you’ve never watched an episode of Real Housewives of Anywhere or followed a Miss Black America competition with or without hipster irony, and aren’t titillated by titles like ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity’ or ‘On Children, How I Hate Them and Want to Corrupt Them, How You Know I Hate Them, and What That Could Mean’. But the book is alive and vigorous and smart, with plenty of sharp observations about sexism and racism (Morgan Parker is African American). It’s coolly literate, with reference points including Gwendolyn Brooks, Bill Murray, Roy Lichtenstein, Jay Z, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. My impression is that the poems are meant for performance rather than for the page.
I went searching for some lines to give you a taste, and wanted do do it with no expletives or references to drugs or alcohol. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was interesting to notice how hard it was, and then I gave up. The shortest poem in the book, with its echo of Nina Simone, hints at an urge to break out of the dominant mode:
Young, Sassy and Black
I use these words
to distract you.
The two Mindy Nettifee books were given to me by a niece who loved them (though evidently not enough to keep them). Sleepyhead Assassins features some of the most extreme blurbs you’re likely ever to encounter, presumably written by Nettifee’s friends before Donald Trump gave hyperbole a really bad name. Amélie Frank, for example, writes:
She’s poetry’s fierce guardian angel and every poseur’s worst nightmare. She’s goddess energy built for speed. […] Reading her work will give your soul a jump start that will smart for weeks. Prepare to have your molecules rearranged.
I don’t suppose any book could deliver on that promise, so it’s no disgrace that this one doesn’t. These poems are definitely meant for the stage rather than the page: they bristle with bravado and bravura, with striking similes and clever turns of phrase, evoking a clicking audience rather than a solitary reflective reader. The poems that most appeal to me are a little more reflective, especially the ones about Nettifee’s father, who we learn had a tragic life. In ‘The Time Machine Paradox’ she imagines travelling back in time to visit his mother:
i want to give her black stockings and rust red lipstick.
i want to loose her curls and numb her better judgment.
i want to say, Audrey, and show her how it could sound.
maybe, if she could have lived her life, just for a night,
i wouldn’t be here. my father wouldn’t suffer.
none of us would feel this way. instead i would be
just a possibility, a ghost, gathered with other ghosts
at the Armageddon lemonade stand.
i’d be the one that remembered the sugar.
That doesn’t rearranges my molecules, but it does linger after I turn the page.
Rise of the Trust Fall comes with more sober but no less Trumpian recommendations. The LA litzine Poetic Diversity says simply:
Mindy Nettifee is destined to be the next Dorothy Parker.
Of course it’s no shame not to be Dorothy Parker. Hardly anybody ever has been. Mindy Nettifee isn’t, and I don’t think she aspires to be: too loquacious, too earnest beneath the veneer of cool, and no rhymes; nothing anything like Parker’s sublime ‘Resumé’ (do look it up).
The poetry in this book is boldly self-revealing: alcohol, recreational and prescription drugs, plenty of sex, nightmares, pop music, childhood memories, heartbreak, bodily functions, all are there along with an occasional touch of epigram (‘Every woman’s closet is a museum of her insecurities’). It’s unfailingly sharp and inventive, sometimes shocking: sure to be a hit at a Spoken Word event. For me though, reading it was more like reading a screenplay than seeing a movie.
There are moments where the words connect. For example, in ‘The Connection between God and Nature Beats Me over the Head with its Earthy Mallet’ (what is it with these long titles?) the city-dweller misses the stars. She chooses the city:
It’s a choice that makes itself for me
every time I am rescued by the warm clotted glow of art galleries;
by the imitation of Django Reinhardt that is really not that bad,
strumming rakishly out of the mood lit punk bar;
by the David Bowie juke-boxing the punchy patrons
at the cheaper bar down the street.
In the absence of starlight
you start looking for the shine in everything.
I can easily imagine Morgan Parker and Mindy Nettifee being sensational presence at Spoken Word events, each in her own way. On the page they’re both a bit too shouty and/or sweary for me.